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Aug. 17, 2017, 7:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Brazil’s Nexo Jornal sticks to its founding principles: Explanatory journalism, subscribers, and no ads

“We realized that context and explanation, we should take those things to an almost radical level.”

Brazil is facing a political crisis, and news organizations are facing down a torrent of breaking news as corruption scandals spanning the last several Brazilian presidents continue to roil the country.

In the eye of the storm, the digital outlet Nexo Jornal has tried to carve out a space for itself somewhere in between academic research and explanatory journalism. It’s held firm to its founding notion of being a subscriber-focused business, as it approaches its second year (under a second Brazilian president, who recently survived impeachment).

“We do explanatory, contextualized news, and we launched at the beginning of a period of crisis in Brazil,” said Renata Rizzi, Nexo’s cofounder and its director of strategy and business. Nexo launched in the summer of 2015, and “at the time, Lula [35th Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] was being investigated. We were in the middle of this turmoil in Brazil, and it was crazy in terms of workload. Things were moving so fast through the news that I think if someone went to our homepage they would think we were from Mars.”

Over the next year, the site established smoother editorial workflows and added five new sections, all through the lens of organizing and contextualizing the myriad debates around newsy topics, or answering common reader questions, from politics to science to culture. Its top stories from the week after Michel Temer, the 37th and current Brazilian president, survived a congressional vote over a bribery charge against him give a good sense of Nexo’s approach: They include a series of charts breaking down how members of congress voted on impeachment, a column headlined “The End of Brazil,” and an explainer on whether it’s safe to pick off moldy bits from food and eat the rest (depends on the food!).

Nexo Jornal’s staff of about 30, half of whom are journalists and the rest a mix including developers, designers, and product, have settled into a publishing rhythm. It always publishes, for instance, three infographics every week, two opinion pieces, and a quiz, Paula Miraglia, Nexo’s director general, pointed out to me. Every month it publishes a piece of longform reporting with comprehensive interactives that requires a heavy lift from a larger team (here’s a remarkable recent effort).

“From an editorial standpoint, we realized that context and explanation, we should take those things to an almost radical level. It is key to our editorial and business models to produce content that lasts,” Miraglia said. “The question we always ask is, what is the content that will make people pay for it? Because of our size, we produce less than some other outlets. It’s not about the amount of things we publish; for us it’s more about its lifespan and quality.” Miraglia and Rizzi both pointed to recent coverage around the emergence of a tape implicating Temer in a bribery: Some of the major Brazilian news organizations covered their homepages with more than a dozen different stories from various angles, while Nexo only had two, a basic explainer and a broader analysis.

Nexo also has a section of its site dedicated to new academic research, where scholars can submit their work for consideration, and Nexo editors work with them to distill their findings into a more readable form (the section isn’t following The Conversation’s model, which relies on member academic institutions for revenue).

The outlet’s academic touch can be explained by its two of its cofounders’ backgrounds: Rizzi is an engineer and has a PhD in economics, and Miraglia is a social scientist with a PhD in anthropology. Their third cofounder, Conrado Corselette, is a longtime journalist who serves as Nexo’s editor-in-chief.

Last September, once it decided its readership base was big enough to start introducing the concept of paid content, Nexo implemented the metered paywall it had always intended to put up, waiting until after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s 36th president, was officially completed. Readers can access five stories for free, then pay 12 Brazilian Reais ($3.81) a month for full access (certain sections of the site like podcasts and videos remain open to non-paying readers). The site has also starting selling subscription bundles to academic institutions. Rather than use a third-party solution, Nexo built its own paywall infrastructure, something it would consider selling to interested organizations down the line.

Rizzi told me upfront, before I’d asked any questions, that she wasn’t going to disclose subscriber numbers or any other financial figures, because “we don’t want people to see us as a threat, or have them monitoring us,” and said only that she was pleased with the site’s continued growth. Nexo isn’t yet profitable, but “by the middle of next year, we’re going to be generating profit,” Rizzi said. “We are currently investing our own money into it. It’s never been a secret. But for some reason, people still make speculations.”

After extensive pre-launch research (including poring over The New York Times Innovation Report for pitfalls of traditional newsrooms), the co-founders decided they wouldn’t entertain advertising. It wasn’t likely to achieve the scale of the largest news organizations like O Globo or Folha de S. Paulo, and the math on advertising to pay the bills for the work the team hoped to do didn’t check out. The team’s also been approached for research reports but felt at the moment it couldn’t devote limited resources to any sort of intelligence unit. Instead, it would train its focus on growing its subscriber base.

Twenty-two percent of urban Brazilians pay for online news, according to the 2017 Reuters Digital News Report, a figure that ranks the country second out of all the countries surveyed in the report (behind Scandinavian unicorn Norway), but also one that’s remained flat from the year before. Rizzi and Miraglia are confident Nexo is on the right path to turning more of its readers into paying subscribers. (On its Facebook page, for instance, some readers are even telling other readers who complain about the paywall, “How do you want them to survive?”)

Facebook is Nexo’s most significant driver of traffic, along with search (those “Who is/what is/why is” explainer stories certainly help on that front), and its main curated daily newsletter. Its subscribers tend to be from urban centers: “In the beginning, we were Rio and Sao Paolo–concentrated, but quickly started to reach other states,” Rizzi said. “We try to be national, not regional, and that’s something that strategically makes all the difference.”

Rizzi and Miraglia were tight-lipped about what other offerings Nexo is working on, but pointed to podcasts, which haven’t quite hit the same stride in Brazil as they have in the U.S., as a format they’re interested in exploring further. They also mentioned the possibility of some “partnerships,” ideas for “new formats around user experiences,” and that Nexo is developing two apps.

“The public discourse in Brazil is very polarized. The idea of debate itself is challenged. We want to contribute to the public debate,” Miraglia said. “Communicating with our readers is a key aspect of that. We are taking a lot of suggestions from our readers. They talk to us when there are mistakes. They talk to us when there are compliments. They share a lot of our content. It’s rewarding that our audiences see what we’re trying to do.”

POSTED     Aug. 17, 2017, 7:38 a.m.
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